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  • On Late Romance
  • Diane Scharper (bio)
Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet's Life, David Yezzi, St. Martin's Press, 2023, 480 pages

It was March 4, 1971, the day of the National Book Awards ceremony at the Lincoln Center in New York. Anthony Hecht had come to see Mona Van Duyn receive the coveted award for her book of poems To See and To Take. Thanks to a fellowship from the Academy of American Poets, Hecht, who had won the Pulitzer Prize in poetry in 1968, was on leave from teaching. It had been raining in New York City, and once inside the crowded lobby of the Philharmonic Hall, he slung his raincoat over his shoulder and removed his overshoes.

As Helen D'Alessandro explained to David Yezzi in an interview for this biography, she was there in her role as managing editor of the Walker and Company publishing firm. When she saw Hecht making his way over to her, she recognized him immediately. Thirteen years earlier, he had been her freshman English teacher at Smith College. She had been half in love with him ever since. It's easy to imagine her attraction since, as Yezzi aptly puts it, "In public, Hecht came across like one of his poems—formal on first acquaintance, at times even dandyish, but with a fraught inner life. His eyes gleamed with wit."

"I know you, don't I," she recalled him saying before he left her to attend the ceremony. He called her at work the next day, and soon, he proposed. As Helen Hecht remembered it, he said, "Having known you for forty-eight hours, I have every intention of marrying you."

Hecht's first marriage ended in disaster, with his wife, Patricia Harris, taking their sons to Europe and leaving Hecht bereft. Their breakup and the subsequent loss of his two sons caused Hecht to be hospitalized for several months following a nervous breakdown.

The happy occasion of Hecht's second marriage to Helen D'Alessandro is the focal point of David Yezzi's captivating book, Late Romance: Anthony Hecht—A Poet's Life. And as Yezzi explains, it also changed the course of Hecht's poetry. Suggesting that Hecht left clues to the mysteries of his poems and what inspired them, Yezzi spends much of this biography searching for those clues and connecting them to Hecht's poetry as he tries to better understand Hecht's writing and the events of his personal and professional life.

Yezzi quotes extensively from Hecht's poems and essays. He includes [End Page 196] excerpts from interviews with Hecht's wife, former students, and friends, including J. D. McClatchy, Hecht's literary executor, and Philip Hoy, the editor of Hecht's newly published Collected Poems of Anthony Hecht: Including Late and Uncollected Work (Knopf, 2023). (This biography was published to celebrate the hundredth year of Hecht's birth and to coincide with the publication of Hoy's Collected Poems. I would have liked a chronology, but that's a quibble.) Yezzi also references some of the four thousand letters Hecht wrote to his family and friends from 1935 to 2004—including letters to illustrious poets like Richard Wilbur, Allen Tate, Anne Sexton, James Merrill, and Elizabeth Bishop. He wrote frequently to his parents despite ill feelings between them. These letters suggest some of the conflicts in their relationship but also show his intense love for his family, especially his younger brother, Roger.

As Yezzi portrays him, Hecht had a self-deprecating quality, which made him seem honest, likable, and approachable. He wasn't envious of other poets and counted Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Joseph Brodsky, and Dana Gioia among his many friends. Although confessional poetry was popular, Hecht generally kept his personal life out of his poems. But they do contain autobiographical undercurrents that Yezzi points out. Hecht used metaphors and allusions to give his poetry universality in a way, Yezzi says, that was similar to work by Robert Frost. Both often referenced nature to express their feelings by way of the pathetic fallacy. Hecht met Flannery O'Connor when he studied at the University of Iowa, and he greatly admired...